Sunday, September 11, 2005


Purely by happenstance (not due to the events which unfolded 24 hours later in New Orleans), I purchased J.M. Coetzee’s Disgrace from Amazon on the 28th of last month, and it arrived Friday. I finished it at 6 a.m. yesterday morning. At 224 pages, it is a fast read, but the book lingers long after it is put down.

Just as Nabokov wasn’t much interested in the political implications of child molestation when he wrote Lolita and was instead using Humbert Humbert’s tawdry obsession as a vehicle to explore the English language, Coetzee, too, seems to use the strife of post-apartheid South Africa as a literary device. Any sentiment Coetzee the author may have towards the country he has since fled is well-hidden. I won’t even attempt to engage in any lit crit here, since others have done it much better than I could ever achieve.

Whatever the author’s feelings towards black-ruled South Africa, he is too good an observer to refrain from describing the brutalities of that land. His novel ends with the utter debasement of his protagonist, David Lurie, an erstwhile college professor who finds at the end his only redemption is by making sure that the dog corpses he is in charge of incinerating are not debased:

It would be simpler to cart the bags to the incinerator immediately after the session and leave them there for the incinerator crew to dispose of. But that would mean leaving them on the dump with the rest of the weekend's scourings: with waste from the hospital wards, carrion scooped up at the roadside, maleodorous refuse from the tannery - a mixture both casual and terrible. He is not prepared to inflict such dishonor upon them.

So on Sunday evenings he brings the bags to the farm in the back of Lucy's kombi, parks them overnight, and on Monday mornings drives them to the hospital grounds. There he himself loads them, one at a time, on to the feeder trolley, cranks the mechanism that hauls the trolley through the steel gate into the flames, pulls the lever to empty it of its contents, and cranks it back, while the workmen whose job this normally is stand by and watch.

On his first Monday he left it to them to do the incinerating. Rigor mortis had stiffened the corpses overnight. The dead legs caught in the bars of the trolley, and when the trolley came back from its trip to the furnace, the dog would as often as not come riding back too, blackened and grinning, smelling of singed fur, its plastic covering burnt away. After a while the workmen began to beat the bags with the backs of their shovels before loading them, to break the rigid limbs. It was then that he intervened and took over the job himself.

Such is the place Lurie has found himself in. His lesbian daughter is now pregnant with the offspring of black thugs who raped her after they locked her father in a bathroom. His daughter refuses to leave her smallholding, even though she has family in Holland. She has agreed, with little or no resistance, to become the concubine of the local “big man” who arranged her rape.

‘How humiliating,’ he says finally. ‘Such high hopes, and to end like this.’

‘Yes, I agree, it is humiliating. But perhaps that is a good point to start from again. Perhaps that is what I must learn to accept. To start at ground level. With nothing. Not with nothing but. With nothing. No cards, no weapons, no property, no rights, no dignity.’

‘Like a dog.’

‘Yes, like a dog.’

I doubt that the Nobel committee would have awarded their prize to a novel which described a black family learning to accept their existence as being that of dogs. I don’t, however, think that Coetzee is being political in this book, either in endorsing or excoriating the situation. He merely describes the inevitable, and it is up to the reader to draw his own conclusion about its greater ramifications.

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